3 ways to transform corporate culture to an inclusive environment

A group of fourteen people with different ethnic backgrounds sitting around a round, white table with different color social networking related icons on its surface. There is a gray and white floor beneath them.

Do you work in or manage an inclusive team?  Do you feel that you can bring your whole self to work and be accepted – even valued – for your individual insights?  Do you feel encouraged to share your views, insights and experiences at meetings?  Are you inspired by your leader and colleagues and encouraged to contribute beyond the job description?

If you answered yes to the above questions, congratulations!  It appears you’re working in an inclusive environment which is making the most of your individual talents and values.  Sadly, most of us probably don’t.

So what? You say.  Why is it so important to create a culture that’s inclusive?

The benefits of an inclusive corporate culture 

Let’s begin by defining the concept.  In my experience, an inclusive corporate culture is an environment that allows each individual to be him or herself, one that not only sees our individuality as our strength but also knows how to leverage it for a more successful and effective team.

It is the kind of environment that encourages every person to offer their freshest and diverse thinking.

Why is this important?  Because, in today’s fast-paced world, in order for companies to remain competitive, they need to harness the collective brainpower of all their people, not just of a small group of top managers.  To do that, leaders must create an environment that respects and values a wide variety of thinking styles, experiences and approaches.

Simply put, in order for a business to successfully leverage the full capacity of its people, it must operate an inclusive culture that encourages and values diverse thinking and contribution.

How do we create an inclusive culture?

There are many ways in which to create a culture that respects and values different opinions, styles of thinking and expression.  Here are three of mine:

  1. Capture the Creativity of Each Team Member

Stephen Covey famously said "Strength lies in differences, not in similarities."   This makes sense.  After all, what can we learn from someone who has the same views, upbringing and experiences as we do?  It may feel more comfortable to have a colleague confirm our decisions, but it doesn’t make that decision better.   Well-considered decisions are those that have been scrutinised from many perspectives.  Understanding what repercussions our decisions might have requires enquiry from every angle.

Start by inviting each person’s freshest thinking in meetings.  One of the ways to do so is to understand in advance what contribution you want from the team and set the agenda for the meeting with this in mind.  What is it that you want the team to accomplish?  Is it to come up with a new strategy?  To discuss the pipeline? To consider the financial results of the team to-date?  Whatever the aim, when setting the agenda, a team leader should ensure it is clear from the agenda what that objective is.

Also, set the agenda in the form of questions.  Framing each agenda item as a question will instantly engage the brain of each participant and signal the message that, not only are they requested to attend but they are also expected to discuss the questions at the meeting.

Inviting each team member to participate as a thinker and contributor will help overcome the customary meetings in which 70% of the talking is done by 30% of the participants, and help set the tone for inclusive meetings and culture.

  1. Learn to Listen

Ben Simonton, the author of Leading People to be Highly Motivated and Committed said: “Listening is absolutely critical to creating a work environment in which employees will decide on their own to become highly motivated, committed, fully-engaged, and in that kind of condition they’re going to literally love to come to work.”

Listening is about becoming a thinking partner.  A good listener conveys trust and commitment, and shows others that they care about them.  It’s only when we properly listen to individuals that we can tap into what’s driving them and their behaviours.   It’s also when we start noticing things about them that aren’t obvious, like their preferences, fears, external motivators.  Listening enables us to tap into what’s going on beneath the surface and bring out insights that we generally cannot expect to hear or see.

Although it sounds simple, genuine (active) listening takes practice.  Most of us aren’t great listeners – or at least didn’t start out that way.  The good news is that active listening is as much a skill as learning a language, a song or a dance routine.  The more you practice it, the better you get at it – and it’s an absolutely vital skill for any good leader.

  1. Switch on your Unconscious Bias Radar

Let’s face it:  we are all guilty of unconscious bias!  You knew that, right?  And while there is an enormous amount of Unconscious Bias training going on, the first thing we need to understand and accept is that it is perfectly natural and is in fact our brain’s way of protecting us.

Unconscious bias is the brain’s way to group similar facts and experiences and arrive at quick judgments without having to analyse afresh each factual scenario.  It is, in fact, part of learning.  For example:  if, as a child, you are bitten by a dog, chances are you will be avoiding dogs at all costs because your brain will surmise that all dogs bite and remember that you didn’t like that experience.  That’s unconscious bias at work.

Of course, most people who may have had a bad dog experience as children grow out of being afraid of them and in fact learn to love them.  So the good news is that we are able to teach our brain to discern between those dogs that may bite and those that won’t.  In other words, we have taught our brain to challenge our unconscious bias and, as a result, have reaped the benefits of having a loving and loyal pet and friend.

But how do we make that transition from being afraid of dogs who bite to loving them?

This is where the Unconscious Bias Radar comes in handy.  In the example above, it was probably a friend or a parent who helped us switch on our Unconscious Bias Radar.  And we learned to challenge our brain’s rash judgment that all dogs will bite.

When it comes to unconscious bias at work, however, it isn’t quite as simple.  Most of the time, we are unaware of our biases; we don’t tend to know when we judge others unconsciously.  So we must make a conscious effort to switch on our Unconscious Bias Radar and challenge our judgments in those situations when they are not welcome.

So next time you’re discounting someone because they’re dressed differently, ask yourself, does that matter? And if so, how?

Next time you assume that a woman with young children will not be interested in taking up a secondment overseas, ask yourself, am I judging her by my own standards or is there any objective evidence that helped me come to that conclusion?

Next time you meet a man who prefers to spend time with his family rather then hold a lofty corporate title, and you think something is wrong with that, ask yourself, what precisely is wrong with that?

Challenging our own judgment is the first step to overcoming unhelpful unconscious bias.  Switching on our Unconscious Bias Radar will ensure that we utilise our brains’ filters in the most effective way and reap the benefits of our diversity.

Want to learn more about how to create inclusive cultures?  Give me a call and see how we can support you.

And don’t forget to come to our Inclusion Conference: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Contributions on 21 June 2017.  Featuring speakers who are walking the walk, you will meet role models, be inspired by those who have found strength to share their hidden talents and learn how to encourage and nurture extraordinary contributions from colleagues and team members.  Meet the law firm partner who founded Inspiring Women – a mentoring charity with 20,000 female mentors.  Meet the athlete who, having reached the top of her own ambition, is now helping other retired athletes to integrate into ordinary life.  Meet the man who calls himself a feminist and who –as a senior management consultant partner - is using his influence to help professional women get ahead.  You will also meet some extraordinary charities – run by ordinary people – who are changing the world, one person at a time.   Join our speakers, charities and delegates, all of whom are creating and nurturing inclusive corporate cultures.

 

Celebrating Ordinary People

 

28856194655-25336498-17I’ve always thought that there’s too much emphasis in the world on highly talented, intelligent and accomplished people.  Sure, it’s important to recognise and revere them – after all, these are the people who keep notching the progress dial forward for all of us.

But I’m also a great believer in the fact that each one of us is capable of incredible things and that we should all be encouraged and celebrated to do more.

Consider the following example:

Meet Sajda Mughal, MBE – a young Muslim woman who turned a dreadful experience into a force of good.  Sajda is a 7/7 attack survivor.  Setting out on an ordinary day at work, Sajda experienced her worst nightmare by being caught on one of the Underground trains at King’s Cross that was subject to the attacks on 7 July 2005.  Having survived and picked up the pieces, Sajda set out to use her experience to change the world.  She leads JAN Trust, a charity that aims to break down barriers to social inclusion for women, providing women from under-represented groups with a voice, combatting violence against women and providing young people the tools they may need to achieve their ambitions.

An ordinary woman who took matters into her own hands and is making a huge difference.

We all have it within us to accomplish extraordinary achievements.  How many people do you know who run marathons, trek to the North Pole, write blogs, bake incredible cakes, sing like an angel or play the piano like Liberace?  Ordinary people with extraordinary talents and achievements.  Imagine if all these people – like you - used these rare skills not only for their own enrichment but to contribute to their communities or professional organisations.  Imagine if companies learned how to tap into these hidden talent morsels and invite each one of us to contribute fully and authentically.  Both the contributors and the companies would benefit.

But how do we do that?  How do we as individuals channel our hidden talents into our professional lives? How do we as leaders empower colleagues to bring out what lingers behind the facade?  How do we nurture and celebrate ordinary people with extraordinary contributions?

Find out on 21 June 2017 at Voice At The Table’s Flagship Conference: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Contributions.  Featuring speakers who are walking the walk, you can be inspired by these role models who have found strength to share their hidden talents. You will learn how to encourage and nurture extraordinary contributions from colleagues and team members.  You will meet the law firm partner who founded Inspiring Women, the athlete who is now helping other retired athletes to integrate into ordinary life.  Find out how the man who calls himself a feminist is using his influence to help professional women get ahead and be moved by some extraordinary charities – run by ordinary people, like Sajda – who are changing the world, one person at a time.

Click here to find out how you can be a part of this movement!

 

Changing the Rules of the Game: When is the right time?

guard-changing-ceremony-1564817-639x852A recent HBR article Women, Find Your Voice! talks about the struggle many executive women face in making an impact in senior meetings.  The article went on to list a number of ways in which women can alter their communications style in order to achieve this.  But in a short ‘throw-away’ comment, the authors make reference to the fact that, while it would be better to change the culture in those meetings so that women wouldn’t need to adapt their communications style, until power is granted to those who want to change the rules, changing the culture of those meetings is rather unrealistic.  So, the comment concludes, while women are operating in a male environment, women are encouraged to alter their behaviours until they have succeeded to gain enough authority to change this.

This struck me as an interesting proposition:  play by the existing rules, play well and win, and then change them.

Get to the top, then change the rules.

This is of course also what Sheryl Sandberg advocates in her Lean In advice.  Yes, she says, we ultimately want to get to the point when we can operate in an environment that is natural to the way women tend to behave; an environment that is characterised by the presence of strong emotional intelligence, collaboration, transparency and empathy (but is also strong, direct and decisive).   But until we can be the architects of such corporate culture, i.e. until women have enough support and/or influence to shape meetings to allow women to be women (and others to be themselves) without paying a price, until then we should adapt and attain credibility and influence by taking things less personally, speaking more assertively and concisely and in general become better conversant in the language and demeanour of current influencers.

But why change the women?  Why not change the men?

I often hear senior women say to me: “I’m tired of being asked to change the women in our company, why not start changing the men/male culture?”

While I acknowledge the sentiment, it isn’t a realistic ask!  People don’t change unless they have a vested interest in that change and for the majority of senior executives and politicians, Diversity & Inclusion is still not enough of a vested interest in order to embark on a journey of transformation.

So is the answer then as Sheryl Sandberg says?  Do we have to try to learn how to play and win by the existing rules until we, like her, get into positions of power and change them?  Maybe so.  Maybe workshops on ‘personal branding’, presence and gravitas’ and ‘how to make your voice heard in meetings’ do still have their place!  And yes, maybe they do appear to advocate changing women, but the way I see it, they simply equip women to succeed so that they can be powerful and fully conversant in any culture, so that they can be ‘multi-linguists’, speaking fluently with others of similar nature and behaviours as well as with those of a different persuasion.

In the end, if we are able to exceed that magic 30% gender representation figure at the top – and maybe even get to 50% - it will have been worth it!  For us, and for our employers!

Leverage Diversity as a Business Opportunity: Reflecting your client’s composition in your teams

team-ii-1238320Talk of the benefits of diversity is everywhere.  Gender in particular.  So much so that people are starting to look at it cynically.  Yet the benefits of getting more women (and other minorities) appropriately represented within each layer of the organisation are profound.  Report after report, measure after measure prove to us that (1) the financial benefits of balanced company boards cannot be underestimated (2) the case for what is often referred to as ‘feminine leadership’ is becoming incontestable, and (3) talk of business survival in the future appears to hinge on that business’ ability to adapt to a more flexible, more collaborative style of management. [1]

So if your company is considering diversity for the sake of diversity, for the sake of appearances or for the sake of complying with client demands, it is missing a trick!  There is really no if’s or but’s about it:  embracing gender diversity – the traits which we refer to as 21st century leadership – must become central to any leadership strategy of a company that wants to continue to thrive in the future.

But where do you start?

One thing you could do is look at your clients and mirror them.

Easy, right? After all, we all know what our clients look like, what they like, how they assess transactions, where there pressure points are.  We also know what their teams look like, the composition of their decision-making bodies, and those who are likely to make the deciding call on any new deal.

Yet increasingly so, clients are starting to challenge service providers to show them that our services will heed relevant diversity requirements:  a certain percentage of women on the team delivering the services, a certain number of other minorities represented in the business.  We’ve encountered a number of businesses whose pitches for new business didn’t succeed because they couldn’t evidence the requisite diversity required by the client.

If your company has been in this situation before, the best way to ensure it doesn’t happen again is to understand clearly the composition of the client’s teams – not only today but their aspirations for that composition tomorrow.  Many clients will have targets that they will want to meet reflecting certain percentages on their teams and on their promotion lists.  Find out what they are and reflect them in your own business.  You may not get there tomorrow but you will have taken the first step to show the client that you are as serious about diversity as they are; that you’re not just assembling a team to meet their requirements but are genuinely interested in reflecting the client’s own attempts to become more diverse.  They will thank you for it in many different ways, one of which might very well be that new deal.

Voice At The Table are a boutique gender diversity consultancy.  We work with professional women to build confidence, resilience and initiative.  We also work with companies to make them more inclusive.  In this way, we aim to build and sustain your female talent pipeline.

[1] Email us to receive relevant reports and resources

How do men benefit from women at work?

parisI recently had a conversation with a male colleague whose wife gave up her very lucrative professional job to look after their children and, when she decided to return to the work force, she went to work in an environment in which she could never match her previous earning potential or career aspirations.  Digging a bit deeper, my colleague explained that, when they first got married, his wife was an up-and-coming professional, working for a prestigious financial institution, with aspirations for her own career progression and growth.  Then, when she fell pregnant with their first child, she felt ostracised and actively (albeit inconspicuously) squeezed out of her team and her job.  This evidenced itself by assuming she had neither interest nor energy to work on high-profile projects, regarding her as not pulling her weight in the team, and changing behaviour towards her to such an extent that she no longer felt welcome in the team and the organisation.  No-one in the company stood up for her and other than to confront the situation through formal means, the only sensible solution to her was to leave the work force.  The wife’s confidence was shattered to such an extent that when she decided to resume her career, a career in the financial sector – or any other corporate environment – was no longer an attractive proposition.

My colleague told me this story when I shared with him what I had heard about another young colleague in our company who was expecting her first child and facing unprecedented difficulties and challenges from her previously supportive line manager.   My colleague was dismayed by this behaviour and stated that, not only is this appalling behaviour towards the women in question, it is detrimental to the company, and most of all, detrimental to marriages.  My colleague wanted very much to share the financial burden of having a family in London with his once equally capable wife, but has wound up in a situation where he is the sole bread winner, fearing to compromise his job, given financial family burdens.  The colleague felt resentful towards his wife’s old manager who pulled the rug from under her feet and the company that let it happen.  The colleague was now in a position where he could no longer pursue his passions, share in the upbringing of their children, or - being the main breadwinner of the family - hope for any kind of work-life balance.

This story opened my eyes to the exponential impact that corporate treatment of women might have on society.  I realised that it’s not only women who might aspire to a reasonable work-life balance; more and more men recognise the value of sharing a home life with their spouse a more fulfilling proposition than dedicating their entire existence to the corporate beast.  The generation behind me is certainly looking for this kind of balance, as other male colleagues have and continue to demonstrate.  Yet corporate culture doesn’t recognise the fact that the kind of things that women are traditionally known to fight for – flexible yet meaningful work so that they can attend to more than just one priority – are also secret aspirations of today’s professional males. Unfortunately, as things stand, it wouldn’t do for a professional man to admit this to his line manager or even another male colleague as he would instantly be deemed uncommitted to his career and company.  But I have no doubt that these conversations do take place among friends and families.

I therefore strongly believe that all the changes that we, professional women, are fighting for in the corporate world, will eventually benefit not only our own gender but also our male friends and colleagues.  And the sooner the old-fashioned corporate thinking changes, the sooner will companies be able to start building a work place and work force that is equipped for the future.